Simple is beautiful. I thought of entitling this post Sunless in Seattle, because when we arrived the sky was obliterated by smoke drifted from British Columbia's wildfires; Stressed out in Seattle would have been apposite, since every time we ventured on to wide freeways, they were gridlocked; or, too obviously, Sleepless in Seattle, as the monorail glided past our 5th Avenue hotel room window. I don't wish to sound churlish, however. There were highlights of our three-day stay in the largest city in Washington and the Pacific Northwest region of North America. But overall, a city I'd wanted to visit for years disappointed.
'Oh yes, Seattle's horribly congested,' they all said once we were there.
We flew into Vancouver on 11 August around about lunchtime. Immigration was relatively straightforward, with no queueing, and soon we were on the 99, heading south to the border. Peace Arch, at Blaine in Washington, is the US Port of Entry. We were not prepared for an extended wait at the Customs and Border Security booths. Friends had advised us the left-hand lane moved faster than the rest. In fact, progress was agonisingly slow, and it took an hour to reach a booth. We were then directed to park in order to have our passports stamped in a building containing a long, even slower-moving queue of desperadoes wishing they were elsewhere. Such as well on the way to Seattle.
As I queued I began to wonder if, as my details were entered, a huge warning window would flash on the officer's screen, that here was an activist who'd recently occupied a bank and breached security in Queensland's Department of the Environment. Just as well I was travelling on my UK passport, eh? The officer was kindly, but his florid complexion concerned me as he described working long hours, with little notice or choice of overtime.
The border delay meant we were entering Seattle at rush hour on a Friday. The notorious I-5 was clogged way north of downtown, and the final mile to Hotel Five at a standstill. We were tired and cranky, having to put back our reservation for dinner, and rush even then. Nirmal's, near Pioneer Square, is a smart Indian restaurant in every sense of the word, with inventive takes on traditional dishes. We relaxed and enjoyed before unsuppressible dog-tiredness struck.
Ask anyone what you must see in Seattle and they'll say Pike Place Market.
It was overcast and cool the following morning. The part of downtown we were in was not pretty but it was only a 15-minute walk from the Market. When we arrived around 9:30 many stalls were still being set up and there weren't throngs of people. The fresh produce and flowers were a delight and the fish-stall antics entertaining – as sellers chucked their slippery produce to each other. There were craft stalls, antique shops and delicatessens. The Market's been going since 1907, and Lonely Planet describes it as 'Seattle in a bottle', highlighting a city that is 'all-embracing, eclectic and proudly singular'. The Market is No 1 in their Pacific Northwest Top 25!
By 11 it was difficult to get through the crowds – it was Saturday. Time to move on: we fancied coffee at Zeitgeist in S Washington Street. En route to Pioneer Square – an area not just a quadrangle, and the oldest part of town – there were ghost signs, interestingly juxtaposed buildings, and lots of red brick and leafiness.
It was a big sporting weekend in Seattle: the guys in green were on their way to watch Seattle Sounders FC. There was lots to observe while we drank our coffee. One man was trying to make a Real Change (like The Big Issue): his patch was on the corner by Zeitgeist, and he kept a base camp in the cafe. He told us it was a good site: we bought a copy, natch.
We meandered north and settled on Grand Central Bakery for lunch. Both salad and sandwich were excellent: we ate them while admiring Occidental Park's splendid London Plane trees, and by then the sun was warm enough to seek their shade. Everything in the world was yellow or turquoise. Or green, of course. Seattle was officially nicknamed the Emerald City by a marketing whizz in 1981 who seems not to have been able to distinguish between gemstones and foliage.
We decided we didn't want to look down on Seattle from the city's iconic Space Needle (184 metres), built for the World Fair of 1962, but the shinier – and taller (284 metres) – Columbia Center on 5th Avenue. It has 76 floors and a Sky View Observatory on the 73rd. We were able to catch up on how the Sounders were doing against Sporting Kansas City (they beat them 1-0).
A visit to a great city would not be complete without a bookshop interlude. From the Columbia Center we cabbed it to The Elliott Bay Book Company on 10th, founded in 1973. First we had tea in the cafe, before wandering. Browsing without buying was the rule, otherwise we'd have weight problems on the way home. The rule went out the window, inevitably: my friend chose a good holiday read; I found some serious homework.
That evening we returned to Pike Place, to an institution called Lowell's. You can't book, and we were prepared for a lengthy wait. We didn't have to wait at all, in fact, or order and collect. We were shown to a second-floor table overlooking Puget Sound. We watched the sun sink into cloud over the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula, where we'd be headed in a couple of days' time. The fish and chips were good, but please don't high-spice the coleslaw.
The next day offered a brilliant prospect – orcas, or killer whales. Puget Sound in Washington is the place to see these magnificent beasts. Unfortunately, this North American trip didn't allow a few days in the San Juan Islands; the only option was to steal a half-day from Seattle.
With hindsight, my problem was previous experience of whale watching in Australia: small boat; handful of people; operator who respects the rules about not impacting the wild. In the past, I have sat alongside a humpback chilling, on its back, less than a metre away, drifting with the boat in the shelter of Byron Bay. Even if I didn't realise it at the time, I now know I can't follow that.
We got up early, drove half an hour north to Edmonds (just south of Lynnwood on the map below), from where our enormously powerful vessel – allegedly the fastest whale watching boat in the Northwest – charged at 40 mph to get to the southern reaches of a channel through the San Juan Islands at the northern end of which orcas had been spotted heading south hours before. When we set out Puget Sound was calm, but beyond the shelter of the Olympic Peninsula, and at that speed, it was difficult to stand or see out of the windows. We travelled north up the entire west coast of long Whidbey Island, and beyond.
We knew we'd hit the spot where boats of all sizes gathered. I wondered how often our whale watching tour operator had to beat the clock, and how dependent they must be on tip-offs from others. Sure enough, a small group of orcas surfaced moments later. They were dwarfed by some of the vessels. Suddenly, I desperately wanted then to be making this journey on their own, without a flotilla.
My photos aren't good, even using a new camera with a super zoom. I was frustrated trying to focus a lens instead of looking at the real thing, and eventually stopped trying. And I couldn't believe the orcas were not being disturbed by the noise of the boats and their passengers. I later asked the naturalist on board whether there were restrictions on numbers of vessels and whether they were enforced. The answer was no, to both. She doubted smaller private craft were even aware they were required to stay 200 yards away from the orcas. We didn't get particularly close, but I didn't want to if that meant the orcas were harassed. Other boats passed between us and them a number of times.
I've debated with myself about this kind of tourism. I have already decided I will never visit the Great Barrier Reef again. Too much damage is inflicted by too many visitors who don't know what they're doing. The cost to the planet of the Reef's demise far outweighs any tourist revenue.
Orcas are part of the dolphin family, the largest members. Their nickname, killer whales, derives from their predatory skills. They have big teeth, and some of them, the transients, feed on seals and sea lions, squid, sea birds, and even whales, rather than fish. There are both resident and transient populations of orcas in Puget Sound, but falling numbers of residents are a cause for great concern. They only eat fish, and are running out of Chinook salmon. We observed a family group of five transients, but orcas sometimes hunt in much larger pods. They live as long as humans – except those sent to sea life attractions, where they die young. Females stay with the family group all their lives. At the surface, orcas breathe several times before descending. They can stay down for varying amounts of time. Individuals are identified by marks and nicks on fins, as whales are.
We saw few other animals: a sea lion on a buoy, and a few birds, none of them identifiable except gulls. We returned to port a different way, via Deception Pass, which separates Fidalgo Island from Whidbey. The waters were fast moving as they were channelled through the gap. It sounded as if our boat's engine was racing, and once more we were tearing along. We had to be back in Edmonds for a short turnaround before the afternoon trip.
I couldn't recommend what we did. We needed to go too far too fast for half an hour or so of whale watching. The boat had two big engines, whose fuel consumption produces big emissions – twice a day. I don't believe the boats did not disturb the wildlife, and I don't think the business is monitored adequately. It's not sustainable; nor justifiable.
As we drove back into Seattle, the I-5 was clogged once more, on a Sunday afternoon, goddamit. There was also congestion in downtown not far from our hotel. Protesters were outraged at the death of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who had been part of a counter-demonstration against a white supremacist rally the day before. Equally as disturbing was the sight of an armoured truck full of riot police in military uniform and scary headgear speeding down 5th Avenue. I wanted to photograph it because I'd never seen the like before, but I was far too fearful. We walked quickly with heads down to the monorail, which runs to the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle and other remnants of the 1962 World Fair. It's a strange place, kind of retro futuristic meets utilitarian. We would have gone in the Chihuly Garden and Glasshouse but we didn't have time to do justice to the high entrance fee. The most impressive things for me were Frank Gehry's exterior of the Museum of Pop Culture and the effect created by punters leaving McCaw Hall performing arts centre.
That night, our last in Seattle, we ate at The Pink Door, in Post Alley, not far from Pike Place and the waterfront. The food was excellent, Italian, and I badly wanted to take home some of the mirrors. There's often a trapeze or burlesque artist to entertain diners, but we just had the cranky bambino at the next table routine!